May 17th, 2011 / 3:23 pm

We Are Dead Unless We Do Something – a conversation between Brandon Shimoda and Matthew Henriksen

Matt Henriksen is the author of Ordinary Sun. Brandon Shimoda is the author of The Girl Without Arms. Both books are available now from Black Ocean. Both authors are currently on tour.

Adam Robinson recently had some good things to say about Matt Henriksen’s book, finding its poetic attempts at translating the incommunicable both frustrating, yet filled with meaning. As Johannes Goransson wrote at Montevidayo, “The ‘difficulty’ of Henrikson’s poetry is not about access but the experience it aims to put the reader/writer through.” So I invited Matt & Brandon to interview each other, to further collide those ideas of frustration and experience, and the poetry that comes out of it. What takes place amounts to late night cross-country trek talk, hallucinatory and winding, filled with shunned understanding and been-through truth. Enjoy.


BRANDON SHIMODA: I was thinking about thinking about you the other day a few years ago … I was talking to a Salvadoran lady in the emergency room of a hospital in Montana. She had to help me to the bathroom, and she was very tender … she was oh so tender, you know what I mean? What do you mean?

MATTHEW HENRIKSEN: Tenderness is a necessarily nationless emotion. A person of any nation may display tenderness, but the places where tenderness may appear will not have to answer to that nation. A hospital does not necessarily provide a refuge for tenderness, but tenderness has enough audacity to demonstrate its free will right there in that hospital in Montana, between the water fountain and the gurney with the sleeping little girl no one will let die, though she will die. I do not know much else, beyond imaginative possibilities, about Montana. I saw a guy with a cowboy hat when I stopped for gas in Billings. What do you think about that guy?

BRANDON: There are versions of him that are not happy, that do not trust happiness, and there are versions of him that know only freedom, that can no longer taste the invasive, immoderate bitters, which maybe is synonymous with that distrust. I saw that “guy” the first time I visited Billings—well, I passed through Billings, on route to New York City, to visit Phil Cordelli, I think. I took the long way. He, the guy, was standing by a rack of road maps. He had a waffle folded on his head—he wasn’t going anywhere! I think you would like Montana, though to even suggest that you might “like” something feels somehow insensitive, or a futile stab at tenderness. Anyway, I was thinking about you, or thinking about having thought about you, or anyway remembering YOU in the presence of this Salvadoran nurse. I made frequent trips to that hospital in Montana—this was five, six years ago—called the ambulance a couple of times, refused to get into the ambulance a couple of times after calling them. I had a poem of yours once with me in the emergency room. I had spent the entire day on the floor of my bathroom, and there was a copy of a poem of yours that I had ripped out of some literary magazine, so I had it with me in the hospital bed there. I ended up giving it, absent-mindedly, to the nurse. I overheard her reading it to the other nurses at the nurses’ station. It was like they were divining the obituaries with a flashlight. What do you think about a poem of yours being read aloud by nurses in the emergency room of a hospital?

MATTHEW: Brandon, you can suggest me into liking anything.  This tender stabbing, that is how we die with each other.  Doubting I know Billings, however, feels ruthless.  Billings, Montana, at least in name, like Toledo, Gary, Omaha.  I have great certainty in knowing the names of places.  I know little else.  Nurses terrify me.  Likely a nurse will first notice my dead body, maybe in an awfully embarrassing state.  I cannot imagine nurses reading poetry.  I suppose that admittance suggests a derisive attitude, but let me assure our readers that any perceived derision comes from my limited a posteriori knowledge.  Your image of these nurses en route to visit Phil Cordelli suggests their role in a sort of Pilgrim’s Progress.  Were they merciful to the poem and to you? Do you suggest that I “like” these nurses? Where has that place gone?

BRANDON: “Past the point of caring, the narrative emerged / as on a highway out of Toledo.” (“Ordinary Sun,” final page).  I think you’re right, however inadvertently: the nurses WERE en route to visit Phil, as it was likely Phil’s body that was the dead body of first notice, and not mine. And yes, I am suggesting that you might “like” these nurses, that they might be EAGLES for you. Now I wish I could remember what the poem was, but I can’t, and I should, or at least a line, since the nurses were so hung up on it. They were pulling so many things out of my person then, their hands were wet with your writing. And they still are—their hands—your writing—that sacrificial zone still in force- and thoughtful operation. The nurses were merciful, they were tender. I eventually came to know them well, or better. I can imagine why nurses might terrify you, but why? What are you saying? By the way, you first published your poem “The New Surrealism” as a work of prose (in Tony Tost’s Fascicle), and yet it appears in Ordinary Sun as a lineated poem. What happened between the former and the latter? I mean, what happened to YOU?

MATTHEW: I hope, despite recent images in this interview, that Phil is not dead, that he is not in a room full of eagles and nurses absolutely dead.  Phil, indeed, might have said something subversive to me about the prose of the older version of “The New Surrealism,” maybe when we were playing pool.  I used to lead Phil over to a bar near the East River that had a lousy pool table.  No sense taking Phil near a decent pool table: epic, nay, heroic badness.  You can’t fake that degree of misfiring.  I will attribute all affection and worship for Phil Cordelli’s corpse on the floor of a condemned apartment in Northampton to a cult of nurses enraptured by Phil’s divinely arbitrary aim with a cue stick.  But probably he didn’t say anything, though he was definitely around when I decided (and often announced, stumbling from reading to bar in Greenpoint and at large in that area) that prose poems are bullshit.  Or maybe they are not bullshit—but what are they? I am, to the core, a traditionalist.  Almost all of the poems in Ordinary Sun were at one time in prose and at another time blank verse.  Just revise back and forth until no form but a formless certainty makes sense? Ask the EAGLES!  Now I speak in the imperative.  I would apologize but I try never to apologize: only to my wife, and that I do against my moral code (made of hot dogs) to honor a far superior moral being—a deity, that Katy: Vishnu/Roy Rogers or the entire Brady Bunch (but as a robot with a soul).  Thus, I want to know about this:

To eat your partner to the brain
And be suffocated by the impossibility that the terrifyingly inert mass of
           wet coral is what loves you
Is to fear
What makes you continue pulling your partner’s organs
With your teeth
In spite of the original desire to barter breath

(“Occasion of the Massive”)

Why do our plans go wrong and how does that help us? Do women find our language foolish? Why does pain lead us so naturally to childbirth?

You might have more to say about pain and childbirth than me, I’ve only ever given birth to black eggs. Well, I’m only being half honest. I’ve given birth to a child in the shape of a black egg, though I called it a child, it was pain personified. It has everything to do with poetry, right? Breaking ourselves to release the energy necessary to create something new—it is not about love, love is dialysis. A small mind—mine—might equate childbirth with making, but a smaller mind might equate it with creation. And nowhere is there not pain everywhere charging. There is so much earth in Ordinary Sun, for example, and so much letting the self and others be, despite also trying to improve the self, or set the self right, or in a way that is a little more right, the lay of the self being somehow just a little more right, and the pain that comes when the composition shifts away from the hand, which is often not large enough, or else is holding faithfully to something else so missing the other thing that is coming in, which is the possibility of righting the composition. And yet, the body in an instant is beside itself, and does not care, but cares! There’s a great deal of discomfort—maybe from pain, maybe from the birthing of disparate things. I feel a great deal of discomfort—I mean, I am uncomfortable. What do you do with these things once they’ve been birthed? Do you talk about them? Is it possible to talk with anyone else about these things? What are you tempted to do?

Birth, especially childbirth—no making or creating there.  Something passes through us and is born.  Men get to participate in this, too, but it’s the opposite of hurting.  After sperm passes into the egg and those two together pass from the mother into the world, then that beautiful entity already is not the parents’ but her own.  And yes, others see resemblances to the parents in the child, but parents know most of all that the child is an entirely new entity.  Poems are like that, too, only poets inevitably try to do too much.  Poets might try to shit poems out, but the conception of the poem is far more pleasant.  That’s why men don’t understand poetry.  We don’t have the birthing cavity.  Those nurses knew all about that, and that’s why nurses scare me.  Women terrify me because they know something I do not.  Alice Notley, Fanny Howe, C.D. Wright—all mothers.  I would not want to face down any of them in a bar fight.  The pain of and after composition does not relate to the pain of birthing.  Poets don’t deserve that metaphor.  And men don’t deserve women either, though a woman birthed each of us.  Are people poems? Certainly, only we pass out of a greater pain that is not our own, while in the poem the pain adheres to the language rather than to our bodies.  In The Girl Without Arms I see a pain that you feel but do not identify as a possession.  By turning your attention to death and the difficulties it poses to our intellects, you seem to deflect the more immediate experience of pain, our daily suffering as dirt, from your identity so that the pain gets the lines dirty and becomes part of the reality in the poem, the world your voice creates, which to me is not this world but all of the world seen at once in a microscope.  The Tao Te Ching has always amused and amazed me, but while teaching it earlier in the week parts of it struck me as exactly what I am, something akin to a simultaneous peace and confusion not fully synthesized.  “Who can wait quietly while the mud settles?” the man says.  “Who can remain still until the moment of action? Observers of the Tao do not seek fulfillment.  Not seeking fulfillment, they are not swayed by desire for change.”  I want to be that and mostly already am.  You drive a peculiar and arbitrary anger through your book, unapologetically but certainly without pride.  The book is all pain and no lament, but you don’t pacify it or impose a resolution either.  Toward the end of the book you seem to say something like, “Listen, I am okay right now and I was fucking okay from the beginning.  What do we think we should do? I love you but let’s not die yet.”  Your poems are funny and angry and angry-funny and sexual and monkish and mostly as many things at once as possible, not polyphony but a constant unplanned dissonance with mood swings.  Do you have feelings about things or do you simply feel? I have often thought about committing murder to add fulfillment to my life.  Would you kill someone? What do you think about, or what happens to your body, when you write words?

What is the conception of a poem, anyway? Or when, in the life of a poem, does conception take place? I haven’t written a poem in four months in part because this question has started to frustrate me, its possible “answers” disturb me. I’m starting to believe that “poetry” is a true element, an objective, natural fact, for which a “poem” is an act of bad faith toward poetry, and on the part of the “poet,” and that a true poet is an empathic witness, both less and more than that: merely present, without record. I have been feeling the massive bastardization of the form that is so as a naturally occurring phenomenon, with myself among the dangling sires. But what to do with it, poetry, when it is seen, or sensed? And do I begrudge Tu Fu for translating what he saw, and sensed? No! I squat in his urine, redolent with wet moon, for a glimpse up his robes. I think that underlying this frustration and disturbance is a greater of each for what qualifies today as “poetry,” which is pushing me back into the world of elements, and away from the desire to translate it. I spent an entire week this January unable to get out of bed, watching stand-up comedy on Netflix, with “poems” screaming themselves hoarse in the air about me. Like a child? I wasn’t going to touch them—I couldn’t. Why do poets try to do too much? Is that what makes one a poet? And what are the gains? What is the higher power? Do I have feelings about things or do I simply feel? I cannot even comprehend the question! I don’t think I’m “writing” “poems” at all, since I don’t think I’m witnessing the true element that is poetry, but disemboweling myself before it, hoping the true element will divine itself in me, in my unfurled bowels. I need you and your book to help me and mine through the night. So much of the writing in The Girl was written while in traction—I did not sleep for eight months, and lost fifteen pounds—and your reading of the pain and possession, the lack of lament, the mood swings, the peace and confusion (The Tao), etc. sound right to me, even though I can’t quite see into the corpse that now unfolds its paper heart to properly hear. The world I needed then was the world of true elements in which your poems are guardians, love-relationships, faithfulness, in the way that I am partially wrong, even though I’m not yet there to believe it. I knew many of the poems in Ordinary Sun, yet I was not at all prepared for how fully it brought—would bring—me back to the very beginnings of my relationship to poems as altars through which a piece of the world could be momentarily touched, and as conveyed by a voice coming humbly out of that world:

Far gone, I need a poison shiver
out of the shapeless mind

to find out where I live, to make up
a place to sleep.

When I don’t sleep I can sleep
with crickets, or trucks,

or the names of our dead.
Harmony has taught me to stop loving

because the most disfigured eye
swells with love with

or without seeing the mangled face.
I can have more empathy for a dog

than a child and have no empathy
for you, only a disfigured grace to strike

your notions to smoke until
we have between us

only motion, this walking,
even when we are not walking.

In refuse we find a hidden refusal
to die, a shape

that never forms, a blinking eye
that will not shut.

(“Corolla in the Midden”)

A disfigured grace to strike your notions to smoke until we have between us only motion, FUCK! Making life of a life, attempting shape of a life, the shape becoming the life, the shape falling ill with itself, falling away. What the fuck is love? Can it be had, or felt, or shared, with another, with oneself? Is it not also an exemplar of bad faith, behind which is an act of greater truth? Are the narrowing and widening spaces between things—in your poems, in the world—then suggestive of the impossibility for us to become, even through them, a KNOWING WOMAN?

MATTHEW: I don’t understand “through” as a process of knowing, only as a motion witnessed (“the duck passed through the rising smoke”).  I think we know “in.”  The women I admire in my personal life, as suggested by the poetry I most admire by women, seem to have a larger “in.”  They live more intimately with the world than any men I know, and that intimacy brings a wealth of abstract connotations and connections, which must make their worlds larger and more real.  I have a grandmother who can empathize straight to the bottom of anyone’s despair, and so she directs her action with kindness.  I’m tightly bonded with my daughter, but by father-daughter actions, play and goofiness.  Katy and Adele have a mother-daughter “in” while they sit on the couch nursing that I can’t sit “in” on.  Maybe because our mothers pass us on into the world they remain in us partially and represent a larger intimate unknown that brings us comfort.  But I don’t know that.  I know marriage changed me and made me a feminist.  In my marriage, at least half comprised by the pure feminine instinct, I feel more privy to the logical nature of tenderness—which I formerly attributed to values, as an act of rebellion against the will to power.  Didn’t a woman give birth to Nietzsche? But after mother-love, we make a choice to love another.  I don’t know if that love exists.  That whole thing about marriage where they say two become one: that’s a lie.  It’s a statement for those who want to circumvent understanding.  You stay separate but make a family and tie two family lines together.  You never know for sure you are experiencing the same “love” as the other.  But it’s not “bad faith.”  Love is not like one of Plato’s Forms: you make it out of a process of actions.  And it’s better than what you thought when you started, even though it’s irrevocably flawed.  We can beat our poems down after the fact because we don’t stay married to them, but our poems are more like wives than children:

I picture you in a wife
         beater in black
Pulled over your skin
         without underwire
That no one listens
         without worrying itself

It is a lie      I want to work
Would you consider it

Impoverishment of lights
On a drive-in theater screen
Vanishing fields        Stand

Picturing each other



I recognize the back of your head
From your poems

You are walking towards something other than
The stylizations of a technical image

Many matches of blood to be scanned
To render the crisis of particular thought

Perspicuous bullets, fire, a target
Flattened against a cactus, riddled
With affection
Looking back at you looking directly

I have taken a liking to bullets
Fast in the bulk of a struggling form

(“Disquiet, Part One”)

Your poems ask rather than state, and I think they demand an answer.  The silence that I imagine you hear as an answer possibly results from the fact of your attention of a rarely matched intensity.  Your destruction has the intimacy of a mother’s love.  Do you feel like a nurse or a patient in your poems? Maybe I take an opposing view, that poetry is what we must cast out to make poems.  I don’t think poetry will make us well, but our poems can help others.  Have you only felt help from the poems of others or have you found help in your own poems? Yes, the world of poetry is pervasively ill, but isn’t one poem enough? Your poems continually defy the easier path and in doing so read like directions.  You seem to be showing people how to get to a place where they can be kinder and more in love with the natural world.  Does this pose difficulties for you as a poet writing to so many unwilling and arrogant children, and does this pose difficulties to your living in this resolutely fucked up place?

BRANDON: I want to hear more about your grandmother—I want to know more about her. Are you close with her? Is she often around—I mean, do you see her often? I want to know also about her empathizing straight to the bottom of the despair of others, and what she finds there, at the bottom of that despair. And how the injunction at the bottom of despair, with empathy descending, and surrounding, when and with it hers, is kindness—I want to know more about that! That kind of empathy, that kind of kindness—they feel like forms of wisdom; maybe you are your own grandmother. Your poems possess a hard, ageless wisdom, sometimes plainly asserted, frequently biblical, in a generous way, oftentimes deeply embedded within the helices of your perceptions:

The world began in wrong. The clouds
prove this by their leniency. As grace

disturbs our sentiment for violence
so the bush lays its ambush of lilacs.

The shortness of the fuse is what
we must suppose God meant
for us to love. Let all songs

shorten the fuse, then
defuse it.

What is love but a negative collaboration?

(“Afterlife Ending as a Question”)


A sickness grew out of my love, so I loved her sickness
and spoke in terms to make it grow.
I grew sick of repetition and so my love.
My love fell into the sickness of her well.


Do you feel like you possess the wisdom that your poems possess? Or do you feel like the wisdom that your poems possess is theirs alone? I feel like a grandmother is the perfect integration of wisdom and ignorance. I often feel like a grandmother, more so than a mother, with the particular kind of love you mentioned, and with the organs weighing in the favor of ignorance. I feel like a grandmother in my poems, in fact, reflecting, while tripping and tricking myself into reliving the reflection, or reliving the conditions the reflection is living in, always present, as a revelation of time, not yet withdrawn. Therefore I feel like both nurse and patient—caretaker and invalid. Maybe there are other people looking through the reflection as glass on one side of which the circuit feels solitary, closed, and on the other side of which life and life’s conditions pass freely, open, whatever the sound, which makes witness a process of blowing brains between basic intimations. I think I agree, though I don’t really know—that poetry is what we must cast out to make poems. That seems like the right articulation of a feeling I have been having. I don’t know about help, or being made well, but occasionally of what is felt, and fleeting, and what happens immediately after, or doesn’t. I want to be present, for myself and for others, and especially for the manifestations of myself and of others—the poems, the passions, the fictions—songs, spires, images—let swirl to the lie and lie in the attempt! And this being present, or the desire to be, abetting a certain health and elevation, the sky growing wider away with the mountain when the manifestations arrive as miracles—just … surprising, you know? … like, there was simply no way to know what was going to happen, no way to even prepare for it, but then it happened, and the seconds of life were just extended by that much more, and by that I mean … what a gift, and what a responsibility. One poem is often enough, and yet how can that be so? Is that true for you? If so, then does that “one” exist? What is your relationship with the world of poems, in which there is the world of ONE? Or one song? Or even one note, one fucking note! When struck, it is the only one, and the only one that could possibly be. “Hard to remember not to fight / especially the worst things / and read everything with sympathy.” (“Copse”)

: I don’t see my grandmother often, but the connection pervades all my experiences with love.  When my baby daughter met her for the first time last summer, I witnessed an intimacy between them that I could easily explain away as an imposition of my emotional urgency to establish memories, but more likely I witnessed something real and beyond my comprehension.  I remember one meeting with my great-grandmother, in the tiny house where she had lived for over half a century, in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan.  What are these items of memory and our future hopes, and how do they differ from trees, birds, and poems? I only see wisdom in actions, and I understand wisdom only as a motivation that results in kindness.  Some dead white man poet said lyric poets come from homes run by women: fine then, and that is why I turn to the lyric for motherly and grandmotherly wisdom, that which perpetuates kindness by examining the fragility of our emotions as we bump up against the world, jagged rocks and rough-hewn lumber, broken glass and eye-shattering sunlight.  The imagery in The Girl Without Arms approaches the earth similarly, maybe with more emphasis on the unwanted effects of pain than in Ordinary Sun (which maybe offers pain at least slightly as a sadistic ritual to intensify encounters with beauty), but your poems more directly evoke and address people.  “For Lucas,” pulling in pieces of a road trip—clippings from conversations, reading material, uninspiring sandwiches—offers humor in the exchange between friends, which accepts but refuses to acknowledge that relentless force of pain that runs through the book.  The humor is masculine (“EXHAUSTED VIRGIN OF THE ALPS”) and dark

                                  We are dead
Unless we do something
Soon—The beautiful gap between your teeth
Will surely persist
As your hair in a pile of apocalypse flame

The pain prevalent through the book only weighs heavier on the conversation, acknowledged but not confronted.  In many parts of the book, escape is not an option.  I don’t see escape as an option in this section either, but the characters seem to attempt an escape with a sense of humor and resignation in order to temporarily alleviate that pain.  In the last passage, I see language that deflects suffering by defying its authority over imagination and also by defying our mentality to concede to suffering:

Pull down the lines. We are flat on our backs
Grass dark. Pull down
The paragraphs
Crossing the sky. Pull down the constructions
Our curiosity, it seems
Dissipating into action
However sublimated our compulsion
Prior to any attempt to get along with the dead
Understand exactly what they are doing
They are doing, in their own incomparable way
Is correspondence
To exist, documented or woven into poems
Simply the stay against aggression or loneliness
Discovered in stadia of beautiful works of an inexplicable force
Spreading rapidly the atmosphere
Would ever make sense, but we gawk
The tears of a sparrow
For us if it did, estranged from the act of getting close
To the things the people who complicate our existence
Make it the trouble it is
Joy is the harm. Death is its own kind of vegetable far.

The miracle of that passage is that I do not find joy in it but rather a means to press back against the pressure the grief-struck must endure.  And we are all grief-struck, us EAGLES.  But how much of this grief has humanity caused, and how much of it comes from the world? It seems that you are tender with everything, both of the earth and of humanity, even what you hate, and you seem never to destroy (though you will watch children fall from windows).  Where do you think our suffering comes from? How does it affect you to see others suffer? What brings you comfort? Have you ever seen a woman pass a spider out of her ear?

BRANDON: When my baby daughter met her [my grandmother] for the first time last summer, I witnessed an intimacy between them that I could easily explain away as an imposition of my emotional urgency to establish memories, but more likely I witnessed something real and beyond my comprehension. Hold there! Hold there within what you witnessed as something real, as something real, and beyond your comprehension, as beyond your comprehension. Whatever it is, we are dealing with the REVELATOR! I think often of something the poet Nathaniel Tarn wrote, that his “whole life has been haunted by the urge to totality, to the incorporation of what the Chinese call the Ten Thousand Things, on the one hand, and the radical pain of the obligation to select on the other,” with which my suffering corresponds, and wherever without holding, which can only be fertile, and good. You ask, What are these items of memory and our future hopes, and how do they differ from trees, birds, and poems? And I answer, Each other and They don’t and Tell me about Adele’s birth… What was it like? I mean, literally, physically, anatomically, what was happening? Was poetry anywhere in the room with you? And I don’t mean in a metaphysical sense, but did you reach for it? Did Katy or Adele reach for it? I mean, I want to shut this whole thing down, and just hear about a child coming out of her mother. A formless certainty makes sense, yes, it is certain. And it will become something better than the earth, for the earth has its function, then fuck it. What is not already a corpse?

Matthew Henriksen is the author of ORDINARY SUN (Black Ocean, 2011) and the chapbooks Another Word (DoubleCross Press, 2009) and Is Holy (horse less press, 2006). Some recent poems appear in FENCE, Realpoetik, Raleigh Quarterly, Alice Blue Review, Sink Review, The Cultural Society, Handsome Journal, and Two Weeks. He co- edits Typo, an online poetry journal, and publishes Cannibal Books, a book arts poetry press. From 2005 to 2008 he organized The Burning Chair Readings in Brooklyn and now hosts irregular readings throughout the country. A special feature of Frank Stanford’s unpublished poems and fiction, selected by Henriksen, will appear in Fulcrum #7. He lives and teaches in the Ozark Mountains.

Brandon Shimoda’s collaborations, drawings and writings have appeared in print, online, on vinyl and on walls. He is the author of THE ALPS (Flim Forum Press, 2008), THE GIRL WITHOUT ARMS (Black Ocean, 2011) and O BON (Litmus Press, 2011), among other books of variable length. He is also the co-author of numerous works with poet Phil Cordelli, under the working title, The Pines.

Both authors are currently on tour. Find them.

Tues 5/17, 8 pm
Flying Object Books
w/ Dot Devota, Lucas Farrell
42 West Street
Hadley, MA
Flying Object

Fri 5/20, 7:30 pm
Black Ocean Reading
w/ Dot Devota & Janaka Stucky
Lorem Ipsum Books
1299 Cambridge Street
Cambridge, MA
Loren Impsum Books

Mon 5/23, 7:30 pm
Unnameable Readings
W/ Dot Devota & Janaka Stucky
Unnameable Books
600 Vanderbilt Ave
Brooklyn, NY
Unnameable books


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  2. Nick Sturm

      This is the best interview I’ve ever read. Brain Foley, thank you for making this happen.

  3. Woody

      I really wish I knew what these guys were talking about. No, wait… I don’t.

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